Posted on Nov 18, 2008


The accidental agriculturalist

Seaman A. Knapp, Class of 1856, was working as a schoolmaster in upstate New York in 1866 when he suffered a crippling leg injury in a freak sporting accident. The injury altered the course of his life and shifted the history of American agriculture.

Seaman A. Knapp, Class of 1856. For Fall 2008 Union College magazine.

In the late 1860s, Knapp, his wife and young children moved to an Iowa farm after a doctor prescribed outdoor activity to recover from his injury. From 1872 until his death in 1911, Knapp worked a variety of agriculture-related jobs in Iowa, Louisiana, Texas and Washington, D.C. He began publishing an agricultural journal in Iowa in 1872 and steadily rose to prominence within the industry. He made a dramatic impact in 1903, when he led demonstration projects to help Texas farmers battle the boll weevil pest with crop rotation and improved plowing, seed selection and fertilization. With help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the demonstration projects eventually reached 7,000 to 8,000 farmers and led to the Farmer’s Cooperative Demonstration Work, according to a short biography by James M. Clifton in American National Biography.

In April 1911, Walter Hines Page, a distinguished diplomat, wrote of Knapp’s funeral: “No one seemed to divine that in the coffin before them was the body of a really great man, one who has hit upon a fruitful idea in American agriculture—an idea that was destined to cover the nation and enrich rural life immeasurably.”

Page eulogized Knapp at the Washington, D.C. funeral, calling him a “a patient, idealistic and achieving man whose name will loom large in the future.”

The Page quotes can be found in an essay written by D. Richard Weeks, Class of 1928 and former professor of English at Union, that appeared in the Union Worthies set of pamphlets published shortly after the College’s sesquicentennial in 1945. The pamphlets chronicle several notable figures in Union’s history.

Knapp was born in December 1833 in what is now the Adirondack Park in upstate New York. At Union, Knapp followed the blossoming liberal arts curriculum, which included philosophy, criticism, political economy, Latin, Greek, chemistry and mechanics. He graduated with honors, married Maria Elizabeth Hotchkiss, of Hampton, N.Y., and began a career in educational administration in upstate New York and Vermont.

It was while teaching students at the Ripley Female College in Poultney, Vt. to play softball that Knapp was crippled, according to Weeks’ essay. The Knapp family, now including five children, moved to a farm in Benton County, Iowa. Here, Knapp became organizer and leader of a stock breeders’ association, and in 1879, was named a professor of agriculture at Iowa State Agricultural College. Knapp was tapped to be president of the Iowa college in 1884.

While at the college, he compiled a bill for congress that would, in 1887, become the Hatch Act. The act helped set up a network of agricultural research stations at several state colleges that boosted American agricultural production.

In the 1890s, Knapp spent several years in Louisiana helping set up experimental farms, which yielded major advances in the planting and cultivation of rice. Under Knapp’s direction, the farms used creative water drainage techniques, which allowed the usually soggy rice fields to dry out and bear the weight of harvesting machines that boosted production.

In the early 1950s, economist, business leader and writer Henry B. Arthur, Class of 1926, wrote of Knapp: “Agricultural output per worker in the United States is estimated to have increased almost two-fold, an increase due in no small measure to the labors of Seaman A. Knapp. It was his contribution to take the best knowledge in agriculture, known and applied by the few, and convert it to general knowledge, understood and actually practiced by the many.”

That idea was the driving force behind Knapp’s work with Texas farmers in 1903, which is regarded among scholars as Knapp’s best chance to effect widespread agricultural improvements. Using farm demonstrations, Knapp persuaded farmers to use new techniques to battle the boll weevil pest. The demonstrations worked. In 1903, the Department of Agriculture spent $40,000 to ensure Knapp’s demonstrations continued. Crop yields in Texas increased dramatically, boosting food production and the economy in rural areas. The farming demonstration model was later employed by the federal government to improve education in the South, eventually leading the formation of 4-H Clubs for boys and girls.